Bonnie Tsui is a contributing writer to CityLab. She writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods.
The science of why certain languages sound the way they do.
The Internet exploded a couple of weeks ago with Joshua Katz’s colorful map visualizations of American regional dialects, based on research by Dr. Bert Vaux of Cambridge University. The maps show who says what, where, noting the spread of regional dialects across the 48 contiguous states (Katz left out Alaska and Hawaii to simplify his statistical modeling). Katz also created a tool that allows users to see what cities are most similar linguistically to their hometowns (San Francisco, not surprisingly, is most similar to Oakland, California; San Jose, California; and Los Angeles, California; and least similar to Birmingham, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana); listed cities were limited to those with a population of at least 200,000.
Though we all know that the subtleties of language vary by geography, new research shows that geography may actually influence how we speak—that the physical reality of a place may have directly shaped the linguistic structure found there. In a recent study of almost 600 languages around the world and their regional context, Caleb Everett of the University of Miami found a strong correlation between high altitudes and spoken languages that included “ejective consonants,” or consonants spoken with a strong burst of air.
Image courtesy of Caleb Everett
Ejective consonants are formed by creating a pocket of air in the larynx instead of compressing it; the English language doesn’t have ejectives, but then again, it was formed on a relatively low-lying landmass. Everett posits that since air is less dense at high elevations, it’s easier to make such sounds (he bases this hypothesis on simple modeling of the vocal tract). The higher the elevation, the more likely it is that ejectives are found there; the correlation was found worldwide, including such diverse language stocks as Quechuan, Armenian, Salishan, and Southern Khoisan.
A audio demonstration of ejective consonants.
Only 15 percent of the world’s inhabited regions are in high elevation zones; a whopping 80 of 92 languages with ejectives were found to be located within 500 kilometers of a region exceeding 1500 meters in altitude. Though he doesn’t know for sure why ejectives are so often used in languages originally formed at high elevations, Everett says this is evidence that geography has a strong influence on the structure of languages, and that other ecological factors -- warm weather, for example, as revealed in another study, or drier air—may direct the sound system of languages in fundamental ways that we have yet to discover. He is currently pursuing research on the idea that a warmer climate can influence the syllable structure—more vowels and less consonants, say—of a language.